Italy's Troubling Immigration Deal with Gaddafi

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Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images

Crowds of immigrants from Tunisia wait for food distribution in Lampedusa, Italy, March 28, 2011

The young Eritrean woman was exhausted, famished and dehydrated after spending four days in March lost in the Mediterranean Sea. She had been on a fishing boat with nearly 300 African migrants, crammed so tightly that she couldn't move. But when Helen saw her rescuers, she couldn't help but feel a little worried. The last time she had seen an Italian military ship, things had not gone well.

Twenty years old and six months pregnant, Helen is one of the more than 22,000 people who have arrived in Italy by boat since unrest in Libya and Tunisia lifted restrictions on emigration, even as fighting and fear of economic chaos drove many to flee. She's also part of another group: those who have made the dangerous, difficult journey before, only to be turned back by those they thought would be their saviors.

From May 2009 until the beginning of the chaos in Libya, Italy outsourced its immigration control to Libya's dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. During that time, Italian ships intercepted at least 1,000 people and returned them to Libya. Many of them likely were political refugees whom Rome had an international obligation to accept. Helen's story and those of others interviewed by TIME last week provide a window into a European approach to immigration control in which some of the world's most vulnerable people were sent back to a brutal dictatorship with the knowledge that they would almost certainly be mistreated.

It was July 2009 when Helen and her fiancé first tried to cross the Mediterranean. (Like other immigrants quoted in this story, she asked to be referred to only by her first name.) The boat the smugglers had herded them onto had gotten lost and run out of gas. The 82 passengers had consumed all their food and water. Their Thuraya satellite phone had exhausted its batteries. "We were ready to die," recalled Helen. And then an Italian ship steamed into view.

At first, the migrants — mostly sub-Saharan Africans who had fled their own countries, crossed the Sahara and spent months in terrible conditions in Libya — thought they had made it to safety. They boarded the Italian vessel, accepted the water they were offered and settled in for what they thought would be a short trip. But elation soon turned to despair. Some noticed by the position of the sun that the ship had turned toward Libya. Terrified at the prospect of facing Gaddafi's brutal police, the Africans started screaming at the sailors. And that's when the beatings began.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, which documented the case, the passengers on Helen's boat included nine women and at least six children. Many of them would have qualified for some sort of international protection. Though the boat had been at sea for four days, the migrants weren't offered any food. According to Human Rights Watch, which also researched the event, the Italian sailors used clubs and cattle prods to force the migrants off their ship onto a Libyan boat.

Helen, who had never been detained before, was frightened by the thought of being handed over to the Libyans. "I spent all my time crying," she said. "They beat us all the way to prison." In Libya, the women were separated from the men and delivered to a notoriously dirty and overcrowded migrant-detention center in al-Zawiyah, a town southwest of Tripoli. According to Helen, about 100 people shared two toilets — holes in the ground with salt-water taps — one of which was often closed. Some of the detainees had children with them. Others were pregnant. Food was rice or pasta in a light broth, "only something to put in your mouth to stay alive," said Helen. And the beatings were constant. "The Libyans never see a black person as human," said Helen. "They don't see you as a person who might be hungry, who might be thirsty, who might get tired."

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